Chicago Cubs (103-58) vs. San Francisco Giants (87-75)
AT&T Park – San Francisco, CA
TV: Fox Sports 1
8:30pm First Pitch
Despite popular current urban legend, Madison Bumgarner has sucked in the Playoffs before. Don’t get me wrong, he has rocked in the World Series. But the notion that Bumgarner has been infallible once the calendar turns to October is incorrect. It’s important to note this when listening to those who feel the Cubs’ hitters are destined to be powerless tonight and might as well resign themselves to the fact that they will get mowed over and just start preparing for a Game Four Lackey-Moore matchup. The here and now is a winnable baseball game for Chicago. Let’s talk about why and how.
In the NLDS, Bumgarner is 1-2 with a 4.15 ERA. This is the result of inconsistency, with Bumgarner struggling mightily in 2012 (a loss; 4.1 IP, 7 hits, 4 Earned Runs — the Cubs win if he even approaches that line) but picking it up during his transcendent 2014 postseason: three runs allowed (2 ER) in 7 innings while striking out six. The Cubs might win if he does this, too, as expecting the Giants to muster more than two runs against any member of Chicago’s pitching staff has proved to be a tall order throughout 2016. The guy in San Francisco’s lineup who has the best chance of homering tonight is, no kidding, Madison Bumgarner himself.
The truth, though, is that Bumgarner’s last nine appearances in October have overshadowed any incompetence he may have exhibited prior to then. Over that time, the man has turned into a legend in our time (as well as any 27-year-old athlete can become legendary). The weight of an upcoming Bumgarner start can potentially be crippling to an opponent at this point, and the prognosticators in the media have all but guaranteed that no Cub hitter stands a chance against him.
Let’s look at Bumgarner’s last start against the Mets in the Wild Card Game. I get that occasionally a pitcher get a couple opportune ground balls in an inning and might get through the frame throwing seven pitches. Well, Bumgarner did that in each of the first THREE innings. That says a lot more about the Mets and far less about Bumgarner’s efficiency. In the fourth inning, MadBum threw 28 pitches… but it didn’t hurt him overall, because he had coasted so easily through the first three innings. A 28-pitch fourth inning should send a guy to the showers in, oh, the 7th inning at the best after around 105 pitches (that means the pitcher threw 77 pitches in the other 6 innings, a perfectly normal total). The Mets could have rid themselves of Bumgarner with the game tied 0-0 and taken their chances with San Francisco’s suspect bullpen. Instead, they did themselves NO favors.
The Cubs will not allow this to happen. Mark my word, someone in the first three innings of tonight’s game for Chicago will make Bumgarner throw seven pitches in a single at-bat. This is an unbelievably tough team to buzz right through, and Chicago knows a great way to make Bumgarner a non-issue in the later innings is to make him put together a 30-plus pitch inning. The Cubs are mega-capable of doing this, and a 0-0 or 1-0 game after seven innings with Bumgarner no longer on the hill for the Giants is a phenomenal position for the Cubs to be in. They’re probably giggling with happiness if this opportunity presents itself tonight, and many fans are looking up affordable parking options for Game One of the NLCS (which, by the way, if you can get a spot, the lot at the Paulina Purple Line is just $4 for 24 hours. Super option but there aren’t many available lots).
The other side of this, of course, is wondering how great Bumgarner will actually have to be. Jake Arrieta is going for the Cubs, with a large number of question marks following him from the season he just had. Jake went 18-8 with a 3.10 ERA, which sounds like an excellent line for a Number Three starter. Except, this is Jake Arrieta, a man who should not be a Number Three starter in this rotation. He was the team’s unquestioned ace last season, and as recently as the All-Star Break was considered one of the two best starters in the National League along with Clayton Kershaw. Arrieta’s fall has made him seem vulnerable (because he is); Arrieta is coming off the 2nd-worst start of his Cubs career against the Pirates and has thrown just three legitimately excellent games since the beginning of June. It’s almost exactly the opposite of what happened this time last season. Which, hey, might be a good thing, because he had two rocky starts in the postseason last year against St. Louis and New York to close out his Cy Young campaign. We’ll find out tonight if limiting his innings and giving him extra rest down the stretch this season was a fruitful and worthwhile move by Cubs manager Joe Maddon.
If Arrieta struggles early, it’s entirely plausible that Maddon would have a short leash and give Arrieta an early hook. Joe has seen enough marquee performances from Arrieta that he knows by the 4th inning whether Jake has it going on or if he doesn’t. Bruce Bochy of the Giants will almost certainly lean on Bumgarner as long as his ace isn’t getting absolutely shelled from the get-go; a B-minus Bumgarner is superior to literally any other option the Giants have after him. This is one advantage the Cubs have over the Giants, since Chicago’s bullpen depth allows them the luxury of losing patience with a starter who is floundering out on the mound. Personally, this is the biggest reason I feel the Cubs can make a long postseason run… not their hitting, defense, baserunning, or any other reason. The Cubs can shorten the game in a way that no other team in the Playoffs can, while the Giants’ game is going to pretty much last as long as Madison Bumgarner allows it to be.
Bumgarner might come out tonight and pitch up to his reputation. If he does, the Cubs will be lucky to score two runs off him while he is in the game. I have no doubt the Cubbies have a game plan coming into this game, but Bumgarner is a remarkable pitcher and certainly has a game plan of his own. His might be an attempt to offset the game plan he thinks Chicago has against him. It might be all moot if Jake Arrieta is wild and allows 6 earned runs in five innings, but if Arrieta can be the man who had a 2.08 ERA during the Giants in the regular season, he’ll put pressure on the Giants that their hitters might crack under.
I honestly want Bumgarner to be sensational. You dont’ get a chance to witness genuine greatness often, and the run Bumgarner is one 100% qualifies as “genuine greatness,” the same as Arrieta’s second half last season was. I don’t want Madison to fall short of these expectations, but I also don’t want the Cubs to lose. The only way to reconcile this is to wish for a 10-inning no decision from Bumgarner, followed by a 12th-inning screw-up from San Francisco Reliever Number Two (doesn’t matter who, it’s not like people outside of San Francisco knows any of their bullpen guys by name). While that’s not how it will go down, that’s what I will be hoping for.
1-0 Cubs in 12 innings.
Either that, or 17-2 Cubs. Which my fingernails would be thankful for.